In defense of socialist meritocracy
The market determines the wages of all the various jobs under capitalism, and to think it will be any different under socialism is garbage. | John Minchillo / AP

This op-ed is a response to a Dec. 19, 2018 article, Universal Basic Income: Ruling class scam or step toward socialism?, by Tim Libretti.

Tim Libretti writes a wonderful article on various proposals for a universal basic income. At first, it’s great, going into the argument that the fact major capitalists are supporting this idea represents a subtle criticism of capitalism from within the very top ranks of capitalism itself. I also support his point of view that we should go along with the “scam” as long as we don’t fall for it.

Then, out of nowhere, he begins a critique of meritocracy, where he rants and proceeds to ruin the whole article.

Let me repeat for the record: Marxists have no problems with a meritocracy. Marxists want the best people doing the toughest jobs. Marxists want an efficient economy where people get paid what they are worth. Marxists want to give people an incentive to work harder. We want all these things regardless of the type of economic system we are living under—be it slavery, feudalism, capitalism, or socialism. In fact, I would argue that the point of Marxism is to have people paid what they are worth. The aim of the socialist revolution is to end the exploitation of humans by other humans so that everyone is paid what they are worth.

The real problem with capitalism is that people are still exploited, they still don’t earn what they deserve. The problem with capitalism is not that some people earn more money than others, at least for those that earn their money. The problem is that the capitalists, who don’t lift a finger, who don’t earn their money, skim off huge percentages of the wealth created by the workers who do earn their money.

Once again, (this is my third time replying to Libretti; I don’t have a vendetta against him, he just keeps making the same point) let me point out how society determines the value of someone’s labor. The value of someone’s labor is determined by the market. The market is not a concept that is unique to capitalism. There were markets under primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. And, there is much discussion among Marxists as to whether socialism will have a market.

Let’s take Libretti’s examples of doctors and sanitation workers. Doctors earn more because the market has determined that doctors provide a more important service to society than sanitation workers. Part of the difference is because doctors have to spend a significantly longer time acquiring their skills. They forego earning a good salary for some six to eight years in order to study biology and then medicine. While they are foregoing that salary, a sanitation worker can walk out of high school and begin earning money at once.

Nonetheless, most of the difference is explained by the fact that, as a society, we value doctors more than we value sanitation workers. There is nothing morally wrong with that, it’s just what society, as a collective, has decided. In fact, we could envision a situation in which there was a “trash emergency.” For some reason, trash begins piling up and becomes a serious health problem. In such a situation, where trash became completely out of hand for society as a whole, we could see where society might significantly raise sanitation workers’ salaries, even to a point where they could surpass doctors’ salaries. But this would happen because society began to value sanitation workers more than doctors.

We as individuals may not like society’s judgments about salaries. We may wish that society valued college professors more than baseball players. But it doesn’t. So those individuals who don’t like that should not contribute to the demand for baseball players by going to baseball games or watching baseball on television. They can also act politically by trying to get their state or locale to pay its college professors more or raise tax rates for wealthy people (including wealthy baseball players).

Marxists need to attack the root of the problem of capitalist society: the exploitation of humans by other humans. The people who make too much money are the exploiters, the capitalists. The baseball team owner does not earn a penny of his/her income. He/she gets all their money by exploiting the baseball player. Even the wealthiest baseball player is exploited. Why? Because he brings in much more money to the owner of the team than he is paid to play the game. I could even argue that the baseball player is even more exploited than you or I because he turns over a much greater sum of money to the exploiter, the team owner, than you or I do to our own exploiters.

So please, can we stop with this non-Marxist argument that there is something wrong with a meritocracy? I really don’t think that I’m going to be a successful concert pianist under socialism; I really don’t think that they’re going to hang my paintings in the National Gallery of Art, either. Why? Because I’m a lousy pianist and a lousy painter. Society doesn’t value my piano playing or my oil painting skills enough for me to make a living out of my hobbies (although several of my neighbors have commented that they enjoy my piano playing). And I’m happy about that because society is right: There’s a whole bunch of pianists and artists out there who deserve to be paid to play and paint. I’m not one of them.


Laurent Ross
Laurent Ross

Laurent Ross is a professor of philosophy and mathematics at the Technological University of Santiago in the Dominican Republic.